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Game Design

What to look for when designing a real-time game

Not everyone is a fan of real-time games. Some feel too much pressure on them and would rather play a more relaxed style of game. Others love the challenge. But what is a real-time game?

A real-time game has time constraints and forces to you move quickly to succeed. Rather than having as much time as you need (or as much time as the other players will allow you) to make decisions, there is a timer present. This may be in the form of a sand timer, electronic timer, soundtrack or an app.

Some examples of real-time games include Escape: Curse of the Temple, Magic Maze, Fuse, and the classic word game Boggle.

I’ve recently created a real-time game where everyone works together cooperatively (or plays solo) to connect circuit pieces to unlock doors and advance from one room to the next, all while an evil genius advances toward you. If he reaches the room you’re in, it’s game over. But if you can beat all 7 rooms within 14 minutes, you escape!

The game is called 14 Frantic Minutes and it will be launching on Kickstarter on October 11th. In today’s article, I’m going to discuss how this game came to be and my experience designing a real-time game, which I hope is helpful to you.

If you want to check out the Kickstarter page for 14 Frantic Minutes, you can do so here and if you click the “Notify me on launch” button, you’ll be notified when it goes live.

And now, onto designing a real-time game!


One of the key aspects of a real-time game is tension.

Players are under some form of time pressure to complete tasks or actions. So, you need to ensure that players must move quickly in order to succeed.

At first, 14 Frantic Minutes, which was initially called Flight from Dr Demented’s Lab (we opted for a shorter title that better conveyed what the game was all about), involved rolling dice. First, you needed to roll a certain combination to break the lock and get out of your room, then when you moved into the next room, you could earn keys of different colours if you rolled the right numbers. This involved players rolling all their dice, keeping the values they wanted, and re-rolling all the other dice until they achieved their goal.

The keys corresponded to different doors. You needed a red key to unlock a red door, a blue key to unlock a blue door, and so on. So, you could collect up keys you didn’t need at the moment but might require later, as you advanced, opening up one room after the next. Sometimes this meant backtracking after hitting a dead end or trying a different route.

But I wanted to create tension for players in two different ways:

  1. The feeling that they had to get to the exit within a certain amount of time.
  2. Being chased by some sinister character.

So, players would win if they got to the exit and escaped in time, but they would lose if they either didn’t escape in time or were caught by the mad scientist who was tracking them down.

But at the same time, you want players to be able to take a breath every once in a while. If they get ahead and are doing well, they should be able to relax slightly, even if just for a moment.

I tried to achieve this in a couple of different ways. When playing all together cooperatively, there was a timer that went off every so often that advanced the mad scientist. But you could also play one vs. many, and the one player would be playing as the mad scientist, trying to roll the right combo to advance from one room to the next to catch the other players. If you had a couple of rooms between you, the tension would ease off momentarily.

Unfortunately, I discovered that there was a game already similar to this – Escape: Curse of the Temple. I wanted this game to be different but didn’t know what direction to take next. So, I put it on the shelf for a while. But the game kept popping into my mind. I knew I had something there. I just couldn’t figure out the next direction. So, I decided to get help.

Bringing Others In

I have a game design partner I work with often. His name is Sylvain Plante, and we co-designed Four Word Thinking and our upcoming game, License to Grill. We’ve got over a dozen other games in the works together and we complement each other very well.

So, it was a no-brainer to show him the game and let him know I wanted to take it in another direction, while still maintaining the feeling of being chased and needing to escape. After showing him the game and explaining my vision, I asked if he was interested in working on this together. He liked the concept and was immediately on board. Soon after, he came up with some ideas and the next time we met up, he was already showing me some cool puzzle concepts for the game.

He had four different types of puzzles he was trying out, but the one that stood out to me and ultimately became the focus of the game was connecting polyomino (Tetris-like) circuit pieces. It worked really well and was a lot of fun to do, especially when you were under time constraints.

So, we went with it. We ended up changing the shapes and the distribution of pieces, and developed lots of different security lock cards to be solved. We playtested and tweaked everything, from the positioning of the switch and nodes you had to connect to the difficulty level of the cards to the amount of time players had to complete the circuits.

We also added a thematic soundtrack. The tempo picks up the closer you get to the 2-minute mark and then you hear footsteps just before he enters, signalling to you that you need to move fast!

It took some time, but we felt like we got the game to a really good spot.


One element of many real-time games is cooperation. While there are exceptions, including competitive games like Pendulum and Boggle, cooperative play is often a hallmark of these games.

We wanted to ensure that players needed to work together while avoiding quarterbacking or the “alpha player” issue. This is when one player takes over and ends up telling everyone else what to do.

We wanted collaboration, not coercion.

In a very early playtest, we noticed that one player was sitting back and not contributing much to the group. She felt that the other players were controlling what the group did.

So, we decided to assign specific pieces to each player. You could only touch your own pieces and nobody else’s. That way, everyone needed to work together and there were often times you relied on another player to help you complete a specific portion of the circuit.

There is also a very strong element of collaboration and reliance on other players in games like Magic Maze, where everyone can move any of the 4 pawns, but only in the directions indicated on the cards in front of you. There’s no possible way to win or even advance all your pawns to other rooms without everyone contributing.

This collaboration was something we wanted to be sure was very present in 14 Frantic Minutes.

Wrapping it up

When designing a real-time game, there are many considerations.

What tasks or activities will you ask players to complete?

How will you keep the tension up (but also allow players to take a breather occasionally)?

Will there be any restrictions on what players can or can’t do, including communication?

And if it’s cooperative, how will you incentivize players to work together?

Have you ever worked on a real-time game? What was your experience like?

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

If you’d like to be notified about the campaign for 14 Frantic Minutes and when it launches, you can visit the Kickstarter page here.

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